The Principle of Hope

by Ernst Bloch

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044

German Idealism influenced the philosophical categories Bloch used to establish his ethical and political ideal. The subjective factor in German Idealism first suggested by Immanuel Kant and developed by G.W.F. Hegel served as the basis of Bloch’s Utopian notions, which he combined with the objective quality of the materialist philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. His concept of continuous progress was taken from his interpretation of Hegel’s concept of progress. By continuous or open process succeeding ages have the opportunity to “re-utilize” or “re-function” materials from the past to accommodate their ideological needs. These ideological requirements can be either progressive or reactionary.

The Principle of Hope compiles a list of occurrences of the so-called surplus of Utopian thought throughout the ages. Bloch understands Utopia not as an impossible ideal but as a concrete state which can be achieved politically. He sees the development of Socialism as the modern expression of the Utopian function which effects this change, the goal toward which the process of history is impelled.

History, however, is not mechanically determined in Bloch’s philosophy. It advances through possibility. Possibility is itself an open process which is not determined solely by the subject. Bloch postulates that the object itself contains layers of possibility resulting in the real Possible, which for him is an objective quality. It is the true synthesis of the subjective and objective realizations of the world.

Because of this attempt at synthesis Bloch has often been placed in the Romantic tradition, where imagination and the material world are ideally fused. One of the major differences between Bloch and the philosophies of German Romanticism, however, is that Bloch insists on the inclusion of the possible development of the object, on the material objective process, while the Romantic philosophers were primarily concerned with the subjective perceptions of man. Bloch emphasizes the dialectical interaction of the subjective and objective aspects. Through this, he derives the political task of humanizing material conditions. Only by working theoretically and practically to realize the possibilities of the world can man create a more humane, less alienated environment. Thus, the question of the dialectics of freedom and order, which Bloch sets out to illuminate in his work, remains an important one.

Art has the power to reveal not yet realized meaning through the presence of the Not-Yet-Conscious. The enlightening ability of the Not-Yet-Conscious can be revealed in what Bloch calls Vorschein (“preappearance” or “anticipatory illumination”). Works of art contain a border over which the Not-Yet-Conscious is allowed to flow when regressive interpretations or static thinking are abandoned. As such, art provides a wealth of guiding images that are able to point beyond the stagnant representation of the world.

Bloch’s analysis of the Not-Yet-Conscious contains not only political and social implications but also individual psychological ones. Because of his emphasis of the emancipatory qualities of psychological reality directed toward the future, Bloch criticized contemporary psychoanalysis. He considered a preoccupation with past events too limiting. Above all, he condemned the interpretation of repression. Examining past events to understand the origin of neurosis was to ignore present and future conditions. At the same time, he faulted Sigmund Freud for disregarding the social causes of repression. Thus, psychoanalysis provided no concepts and solutions for future developments. In Bloch’s opinion, only changes in society could improve the psychological situation of the individual. To ignore social causes was to deal exclusively with superficial symptoms without addressing the underlying cause.

The inner substance of hope is “real humanism.” Because this goal can never be wholly achieved, however, it cannot be defined completely. One is able only to point in the...

(This entire section contains 1044 words.)

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direction of real humanism. Utopian hope—what Bloch terms the “oldest conscious dream of humankind”—anticipates the overthrow of those social conditions which enslave the individual. Daydreams can therefore be extremely useful, since they take place in semiconsciousness and point to objective possibilities. Daydreams, by themselves unproductive, can, in portraying the possibility of achieving certain wished-for goals, serve as the means through which humans form themselves. Such dreams provide the stimulus to move out of the current ideology’s hold. It is at this point that art and literature perform their Utopian function.

Bloch, however, was no mere visionary; he intended his philosophy to be concretely Utopian. His philosophy requires active involvement with the world rather than contemplation alone. As such, The Principle of Hope compiles historical accounts of hope against the danger of total annihilation. At the same time, it provides practical guidelines for everyday life in an age of cultural demise, when the achievement of a more humane society seems unlikely. Bloch points toward a Socialist theory based on hope. The Principle of Hope envisions a society in which the individual can live and work meaningfully and with satisfaction.

Bloch refrains from providing answers or definitions; instead, he provokes readers to explore his images and their connotations. Thus, The Principle of Hope is rich with aphorisms, fables, and anecdotes. Bloch’s expressionistic style has been said to “shock” his readers into an awareness of their own needs so that they would abandon those conditions preventing communication and collective action.

Indeed, with his often-cryptic language Bloch wanted to remove both himself and his readers from customary thought patterns. Only through a revitalization, reordering, and refunctioning of language could conventionality be overcome. To avoid the staleness of language, with its underlying complacency, Bloch uses montage techniques. His bourgeois heritage had to be reutilized to allow his novel Utopian undercurrent to be displayed. Bloch contended that bourgeois capitalism itself had created an empty space, Hohlraum, that needed to be filled with new content in new forms. He thus incessantly experimented with new images, seeking to refine them and endow them with anticipatory illumination, or hope. Thus, anticipatory illumination is intrinsic in Bloch’s style: An image will be integrated into the argument before it emerges as a full metaphor. These images function as hidden metaphors, seemingly aimless, then surface again with new significance, thus mirroring Bloch’s theory of the continuing legacy of Utopian content. His use of metaphor is based on his conviction that in metaphor the secret signatures of the world’s meaning are contained. Literature therefore does not primarily imitate life but reveals its secrets.


Critical Context